CD Reviews

Keith Rowe – September

December 6, 2012

Erstwhile ErstLive

Keith Rowe’s most recent contribution to the Erstwhile label is a live recording of his New York performance from 11/9/11, a concert that coincided with the tenth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Centre. The recording is, predictably, superb, if incredibly tense. In his eighth decade now, Rowe has reached a stage with his music in which every second seems vital, every gesture loaded with meaning, hidden meaning and then a further meaning on top, and above all he is making music that could only be made by Keith Rowe. This isn’t so say that he is unique in working at such a level, merely that he has taken his work to a point that it has almost formed its own language, rules and structures that belong purely to himself. This is one of a few reasons why, in my opinion, I think that Rowe’s primary value to music from here on in is probably going to be as a solo artist. His duos with John Tilbury aside, recent collaborative works have not, for me at least, hit anywhere near the same heights as his solo releases, and on the few occasions I have seen him perform live over recent years the solos have stood head and shoulders over the sets performed with others. It is as if his musical language, which has developed into something between improvisation and an internal narrative as composition amalgam has become so well defined, so certain of it own way forward that it just doesn’t adapt well to others any longer. There is no room to stray off of what is clearly a very powerfully delineated path lined with references to great painters and composers almost entirely long dead. Rowe’s genuinely felt disdain for the vast majority of modern improvisation has perhaps left him with fewer friends or potential collaborators amongst the music’s community anyway, but perhaps this is a good thing, and that his creative energies should now be piled into building on what is an immensely powerful body of solo work to see just how far it can go.

So September is, as we might expect, a powerful, emotional wrench of an album. At a base, descriptive level, it blends short, viciously sharp attacks at his tabletop guitar with a lot of radio grabs and a series of long portions of the second movement of Antonín Dvořák’s second piano quartet, one of a series of pieces of classical music, usually chamber works that regularly grab Rowe and force their way into his work, though usually not so literally as to be played directly into the performance as a significant, predetermined part of the music as is the case on September. A recent Rowe solo set is an intense, harrowing listening experience at the best of times, but couple such an affair with the obvious significance of playing on the tenth anniversary of the terror attacks on New York, in the city itself and the end result is quite extraordinary. The Dvořák winds its way through the thirty-five minute piece as, apparently, a reference to memory and loss, cutting out two or three times, subsumed in brutally abrasive interference and stabs at the guitar and bits of radio, presumably Rowe bringing the city of New York into the performance. So we hear bits of pop music running for a while (The Police, EMF) and several grabs from spoken word radio that all seem, perhaps unsurprisingly to discuss the events of a decade earlier. It is all woven together with intensely pregnant silences and abrasive attacks that feel a bit like those moments when you are jolted awake from a bad dream- jarring interventions into already unsettling melancholy.

There will of course be streams of symbolism, mostly known only to Rowe running through the events of September. The sleeve design includes a photo of a vaguely guitar based drawing by Rowe that will have constituted some kind of a score for the performance. Events in the recording will have occurred for particular reasons, with much thought and the accumulated experience of many years working towards this point informing the music. Stunningly intense, this CD works well for me personally when considered as part of a line of solo works by Rowe that each progress onwards from the last but each builds on his personal musical language  and approach to a performance.  Almost like a genre of its own, his music seems to operate along its own, instantly recognisable but increasingly powerful route, and I look forward to the next instalment eagerly.

Comments (9)

  • Dan Warburton

    December 20, 2012 at 6:36 am

    Nice write-up, Richard, and I agree with you that Rowe’s solo work is always more powerful. The only duo of his that reaches the same heights is the one with Nakamura. Teaming him up with Fennesz, Unami and Malfatti didn’t work – and that last pairing was partly my idea.
    I have a nagging doubt about September, though – or rather the reaction to the album I’ve read so far, which is (as is to be expected from our small circle of friends) excessively adulatory. Had the piece not been recorded on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, would it have garnered as much praise? (Of course, Keith wouldn’t have stumbled upon the same relevant radio snippets, one imagines.)
    You may have seen the Shallow Rewards thread over at IHM, where Chris Ott ( quite rightly, in my my view) puts the boot into Billy Basinski for using 9/11 to sell his Disintegration Tapes. I’m not for a moment accusing Rowe or Abbey of anything remotely as cynically manipulative, but I do wonder to what extent certain people’s reaction to the music Keith made that night has been filtered through something that has nothing to do with music at all.

  • jon abbey

    December 22, 2012 at 12:19 am

    I think the Rowe/Sachiko duos are pretty great also, if we’re going to go through them all like that.

    but really I’m posting because of Dan’s comment: “certain people’s reaction to the music Keith made that night has been filtered through something that has nothing to do with music at all”, which to me is kind of crazy in this context, since Keith’s performance here has everything to do with the locale and the anniversary and would have presumably been wildly different if it was performed in Paris a week later or London a week earlier.

    one aspect of this piece that I’m pretty sure no one has yet gotten into (understandably, even though Keith thinks it should be obvious to listeners) is that he attempted to use the structure of Shostakovich’s 8th String Quartet, which was written in Dresden 15 years after the bombing there in WW II, and which was dedicated “to the victims of fascism and war”. Jesse G can maybe speak to this a bit if he sees this, as I know he talked to Keith about it after writing his own take on the set.

  • Dan Warburton

    December 30, 2012 at 3:27 pm

    I hadn’t spotted the Shostakovich connection myself, but now you mention it.. Proof, perhaps, that Keith’s solo work in recent years is nicely blurring that ever harder to discern line between composition and improvisation.. I should listen with a stopwatch and see how closely it corresponds to the slow – fast -fast – slow – slow model.
    Sure Jon, point taken, of course Keith tailored his performance to the place and the time – my comment was aimed more at some of the reactions I’ve read. Remember the ectstatic reactions (and subsequent backlash) that accompanied Joe McPhee’s Drimala album Shadow & Light which was actually recorded in NYC on the morning of 9/11/2001?

  • jon abbey

    December 30, 2012 at 9:18 pm

    nope, McPhee’s not really on my radar these days, I did know that Loren Connors recorded something that day.

    and honestly, if anything, I think September has been underappreciated so far. maybe people are just used to Keith releasing incredible solo records at this point, but even by that standard, I think this one is pretty special.

  • Jesse

    December 31, 2012 at 4:52 am

    i am puzzled by your assessment of september, jon; in what sense has it been “underappreciated”? pinnell, olewnick, improv sphere, tiny mix tapes, hatta, numerous IHM best-of-2012 listers, experimedia and myself -to cite a cursory list – have praised it highly.

    whose missing in your assessment?

  • Jesse

    December 31, 2012 at 4:57 am

    addendum – i intended, to say of course, i am puzzled at your assessment of september’s reception as “under-appreciated.”

  • jon abbey

    December 31, 2012 at 1:29 pm

    dunno, The Wire (short review but no year-end mentions)? actual sales? just my perception…

  • jon abbey

    December 31, 2012 at 3:44 pm

    on further reflection, I think I was talking more about the depth of the discussion around it, maybe unfair for me to expect but still a bit disappointing. for instance, no one that I recall has mentioned the fantastically appropriate radio grab in that country song: “funny when you’re dead, how people start listening” (and again, this took me many listens to latch on to myself). there is no way Keith knew this couplet was coming when he first pulled the song into the mix (and I asked him later just to be sure), but he seems to have almost a sixth sense for found material which I find continually astonishing as an observer/fan.

  • billphoria

    January 10, 2013 at 5:57 am

    This is a masterpiece of beauty,telepathy ,improvisation,composition,and how (forgive the acid experienced -informed);’everything connects’;Rowe ,here,is an artist, ‘in the zone’…

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